How Much “Moravian” Is Natty Bumppo?

Michal Peprnik (Palacký University)

Presented at the No. 1 Cooper Panel of the 2013 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 30, May, 2013, pp. 2-6.

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

1. Introduction

“Damme, Deerslayer, if I do not believe you are, at heart, a Moravian, and no fair minded, plain dealing hunter, as you’ve pretended to be!”

(Deerslayer, Ch. 1, 508)

Could Natty Bumppo, this mythic American hero and godfather of a long line of American heroes, be actually more a Moravian than an American hunter? I do not intend to push the argument that far, but I propose a re-examination of the Moravian background of this founding father of American heroes. I want to argue that the influence of the Moravian Church does not wane in James Fenimore Cooper’s pentalogy, but on the contrary it grows until it becomes a constitutive element of Natty Bumppo’s cultural identity.

Most of the papers related to my topic examine the relations between the text and its sources. 1 My intention, however, is to employ a textual analysis and examine all the references to the Moravian Church because I believe that such a study can shed more light on the development of Natty Bumppo’s cultural identity, the structure of his cultural location. His identity emerges as a result of conscious and unconscious choices the character makes that are revealed to the reader through Natty’s conduct and his spoken discourse (he likes to think and reason aloud).

Cooper’s conception of Natty Bumppo is too large a subject to be handled here. Suffice it to say, considered from the point of view of the chronology of publication, Natty begins his literary existence as a simple, rough, grumbling old frontiersman in The Pioneers (1823), only to be reshaped into a famous, fearless, selfless frontier hero in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), dying among friendly Indians as an age-worn venerable patriarch with failing eyesight in The Prairie (1827), to be revived in a heroic/comic role as an unsuccessful suitor in The Pathfinder (1840), and making his last appearance as a mythic youthful American Adam on his first warpath in The Deerslayer (1841). He is, in D. H. Lawrence’s words, “silent, simple, philosophic, moralistic,” and this progression from an old man to a young man, “from old age to golden youth,” is, according to Lawrence, “the myth of America.” 2

Some authors, however, maintain that, in accordance with Cooper’s wish articulated in his 1850 preface, 3 the pentalogy should be read according to the chronology of the protagonist’s life. 4 In this way the sequence acquires more pessimistic thematic implications, moving from youth and innocence to old age and death far away from the centers of American civilization, in the hostile, open, treeless, empty space of the prairie. 5

I am going to follow the chronology of the publication because I am interested in the development of Natty’s character. I assume that the pentalogy should not be considered as a thematic cycle or a single text from a synchronic perspective; it was not written with a clear plan for five books, but its agenda developed as Cooper grew older and gained new insights, and therefore a diachronic approach is better suited to my purpose of investigating the changing role of the Moravian Church in the Leatherstocking Tales.

2. The Phases in Natty’s Relationship to the Moravian Church

The main source of Cooper’s knowledge of the Moravian Church and its Christian missions among the Mohican and Delaware Indians was John Gottlieb Heckewelder, a missionary of the Moravians, whose father was born in Suchdol (Zauchtel or Zauechtental in German), North Moravia (the eastern part of the Czech Republic). Cooper explicitly acknowledged his indebtedness to Heckewelder in his preface to The Last of the Mohicans. According to Wayne Franklin, out of Heckewelder’s three books about the American Indians, Cooper read only History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations (1818). 6 In Cooper’s fictional world, Heckewelder is never mentioned; the Moravian Church missionaries remain anonymous, a collective entity, usually referred to as the Moravians.

I discovered twenty-two references to the Moravian Church in Cooper’s novels, and all of them are found in the Leatherstocking Tales. My close examination of those references reveals distinctive phases of the changing role of the Moravians in the Leatherstocking Tales, and, consequently, a changing concept of Natty Bumppo.

2.1 Reserved Distance: The Pioneers

In The Pioneers Natty’s attitude to the Moravians is marked by a slightly critical distance. There are two main sources of his grudge. One source is his conservative character: Natty is conceived as a conservative, down-to-earth, simple-minded old-timer. Another source of his grudge is situated in the distant past before the story starts and concerns the granting of the land around the lake Otsego to Major Effingham.

Natty’s grudge against the Moravians also springs from his rather self-centered anti-intellectualism. In his speech he conceives of himself as a simple common man without any higher aspirations, and he sets himself apart from both the gentleman Oliver Effingham and his best friend Chingachgook, an old Mohican chief.

“But I am a plain, unlarned man, that has sarved both the king and his country, in his day, ag’in’ the French and savages, but never so much as looked into a book, or larnt a letter of scholarship, in my born days.” (Pioneers, Ch. 12, 135)

A further reason why Natty holds a grudge against the Moravians is that he blames them for the disappearance and dispossession of the Delawares in the region.

“Oh! He [Chingachgook] was christianized by the Moravians, who was always over intimate with the Delawares,” said Leather-Stocking. “It’s my opinion, that had they been left to themselves, there would be no such doings now, about the head-waters of the two rivers, and that these hills mought have been kept as good hunting-ground, by their right owner, who is not too old to carry a rifle, and whose sight is as true as a fish-hawk hovering — ” (Pioneers, Ch. 13, 156)

How exactly the Moravians were responsible for the granting of their land around Lake Otsego to Major Effingham for his services to the tribe during the French and Indian Wars is not explained. Natty’s words, at the same time, can be understood as a recognition of the Moravian influence. This recognition of their influence and acknowledgement of their good relations with the Delawares will grow into open admiration in The Prairie, the third novel of the Leatherstocking Tales.

The cultural identity of Natty Bumppo is characterized as a mixture of Indian and American manners: “The Leather-Stocking, who had imbibed, unconsciously, many of the Indian qualities, though he always thought of himself, as of a civilized being, compared with even the Delawares,... ” (Pioneers, Ch. 41, 461). However, with a few more touches Cooper provides a more specific and more complex cultural background — it turns out that Natty was raised by the upper-class Effingham family and was major Effingham’s personal servant for many years, even though this obviously did not mean being a house servant. The Effingham connection receives a central focus as if this link was of high importance and was an essential constitutive identitary element. It seems that the discovery of Natty’s loyalty to his former master is a dramatic element that elevates him above his frontier skills and endows him with a moral aura in which even his merits as a double rescuer of Elizabeth Temple’s life pale. The Effingham connection thus adds another component to his cultural identity because it was believed that the socially inferior could improve their manners and widen their scope of vision through their associations with the superior class.

The second novel of the pentalogy, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), surprisingly lacks references to the Moravians. Since we can only speculate about the reasons for the absence, I will skip the novel.

2.2 Positive Presence and Appreciation: The Prairie

The third novel of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Prairie (1827), has only two references to the Moravians. Both of them are found in Natty’s discourse and both of them are explicitly positive. The shift to a more positive representation of the Moravians is related to a new concept of Natty’s cultural location. While in The Pioneers Natty as a down-to-earth old-timer keeps his distance from the Moravians and shuns religious or political issues, leaving them for discussion to the chiefs and gentlemen like Oliver Effingham or Chingachgook, in The Prairie, the readers learn to their surprise that Natty took a lively interest in the debates and history lessons organized by the Moravians in the Delaware villages when he lived among them. The Moravians are, for the first time, branded as “good Moravians”:

“I am but little gifted in the fables of what you call the old world, seeing that my time has been mainly passed looking natur’ steadily in the face, and in reasoning on what I’ve seen rather than on what I’ve heard in traditions. But I have never shut my ears to the words of the good book, and many is the long winter evening that I have passed in the wigwams of the Delawares, listening to the good Moravians, as they dealt forth the history and doctrines of the elder times, to the people of the Lenape! It was pleasant to hearken to such wisdom after a weary hunt! Right pleasant did I find it, and often have I talked the matter over with the Great Serpent of the Delawares, in the more peaceful hours of our outlyings, whether it might be on the trail of a war-party of the Mingoes, or on the watch for a York deer.” (Prairie, Ch. 22, 1149)

While Natty presents himself as a passive and silent listener to those debates in Delaware wigwams, outside the wigwams he likes to discuss matters of history and religion with his friend Chingachgook. In other words, Natty Bumppo, an archetypal American hero, received his informal education from the Moravian missionaries. (In fact, of all American literary characters, Natty and Chingachgook must have been the best informed about history and reformation movement in Central Europe. 7)

Natty’s new interest in intellectual matters of religion and the history of other worlds clearly demonstrates his gradual shift from being a rather narrow-minded, lower-class old-timer to a more open-minded person. Whereas in The Pioneers Natty’s cultural identity was determined primarily by his frontier mixture of Indian and American manners (and his American manners were class-bound) and by his affiliation to the upper-class Effinghams, in The Prairie, the location of his culture and his sources of identity are reconfigured. Natty’s association with the Moravians allowed him to grow in stature — the lectures of the Moravians in the Delaware village and their debates with the Delawares were his school and university, and his discussions with Chingachgook provided him with opportunities to refine his ideas and his rhetorical skills. Consequently, in The Prairie his association with the Moravians supplanted the genteel influence of the Effinghams.

The second important reference to the Moravians is also explicitly positive. Natty, reacting to the request of the proud Pawnee chief to deliver his taunting message, has the following soliloquy:

“This is not what the good Moravians said to the councils of the Delawares, nor what is so often preach’d, to the white-skins in the settlements, though, to the shame of the colour be it said, it is so little heeded. Pawnee, I love you; but being a Christian man, I cannot be the runner to bear such a message.” (Prairie, Ch. 25, 1196)

Not only education, but also the foundations of Natty’s Christian faith and ethics are attributed to a Moravian source in this novel, an alternative value system.

2.3 The Pathfinder

After The Prairie, new references to the Moravians appear in the next volume of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Pathfinder (1840). Their number increases from two in The Prairie to five in The Pathfinder. While the Moravians continue to be presented in a favorable manner, Natty’s attitude to them retains a slight degree of distance. The Moravians are still a high authority in religious matters, as becomes evident during the scene of the death of Sergeant Dunham, when his daughter Mabel is trying to divert his thoughts from secular matters and turn them to spiritual ones. Her last sentence, “There is no hope for any but in the mediation of Christ,” invokes in Natty the teaching of the Moravians and inspires him to the following comment: “This is what the Moravians used to tell us” (Pathfinder, Ch. 28, 453). The authority of the Moravians is reinforced by the authority of the female voice, whose authority springs from the deep sources of the human heart, an agency hailed in the sentimental tradition, conceived as an intuitive cognitive capacity, not to be mixed up with passions and emotions. 8

A certain degree of Natty’s distance from the teachings of the Moravians is established through a new fact we learn from Natty that, unlike many Delawares, he was not christened by the Moravians (Pathfinder, Ch. 27, 445).

“The Moravians tried me hard, and one of the King’s chaplains has had his say, too, though that’s a class no ways strenuous on such matters; and a missionary sent from Rome talked much with me, as I guided him through the forest, during the last peace; but I’ve had one answer for them all-I’m a Christian, already, and want to be neither Moravian, nor Churchman, nor Papist. No — no — I’ll not deny my birth and blood.” (Pathfinder, Ch. 27, 446)

Natty’s rejection of church membership should be understood as a very American performative gesture; Natty asserts his individual freedom of choice in shaping his identity and refuses to limit this freedom by committing himself to the ideologies and practices of any of those churches. As a cultural hybrid, he wants to be under no pressure to decide which cultural aspects he will adopt and integrate. If he committed himself to the Moravians, for example, he would have to accept their pacifism, and for him, as a hunter and military scout, this is impossible.

The references to birth and blood, vague as they are, indicate the only frames of identity he acknowledges. Even though the two concepts could be interpreted as class and race, I suggest we read them as a reference to a situated identity. Natty’s American identity is located in a particular geographical, social, and cultural context: he was born and brought up in frontier conditions and exposed to the Native American culture. He cannot be converted; conversion is presented as a temptation and a trial which he endures, and, moreover, all the denominations mentioned above are presented as un-American — the Moravians, the Church of England, and Roman Catholics. Thus Cooper, with reference to birth and blood, both affirms the prejudices against the un-American foreigners and transcends them when he demonstrates Natty’s genuine respect for the Moravians and his toleration of other denominations.

2.4 The Deerslayer

Whereas The Pathfinder contained five references to the Moravians, The Deerslayer has ten. Obviously, rather than disappearing from Cooper’s mind during the thirteen-year gap between The Prairie and The Pathfinder, the Moravians grew in stature.

The references, as usual, are focalized — they are presented in the characters’ discourse and never in the narrator’s discourse in the novel. Nevertheless, only two characters refer to the Moravians; apart from Natty, the other is Hurry Harry, a rude, coarse, and unscrupulous frontiersman. Harry speaks of them with great disdain, but, being highly prejudiced, he is not a trustworthy speaker and his criticism of the Moravians achieves exactly the opposite result. This interesting scene happens at the beginning of the novel, when Natty, now a young man in his twenties (called the Deerslayer) and living among the Delawares, is subjected to the accusation that he must be a Moravian; when Hurry Harry declares his readiness to kill any rival suitor to Judith, Natty responds that he would not cover up such a crime and would report it to the authorities. Natty’s ethical conduct is found to be Moravian by Harry:

“Damme, Deerslayer, if I do not believe you are, at heart, a Moravian, and no fair minded, plain dealing hunter, as you’ve pretended to be!” (Deerslayer, Ch. 1, 508)

In Hurry Harry’s hunter’s moral code, the phrase “fair minded” translates as companionship in every enterprise, regardless of its methods and purpose, while “plain dealing” implies a readiness to use direct methods to meet one’s own objectives, in this case murder. For Natty, killing a rival in love is murder, and he sets such a case apart from a state of war or self-defense. 9 On top of that, Natty, unlike Hurry, is willing to respect the freedom of choice of the other person concerned, that is, Judith. Judith has the right to make her own choice from among her suitors.

Natty’s Moravian manners are also evident in his sympathetic cultural relativism and the instinctive humanism he displays in his defense of the Native Americans.

“I look upon the red men to be quite as human as we are ourselves, Hurry. They have their gifts, and their religion, it’s true; but that makes no difference in the end, when each will be judged according to his deeds, and not according to his skin.” (Deerslayer, Ch. 3, 537)

This passage about the equality of races is later linked with the Moravian teaching about the ideal Christian ethics.

“That’s not Moravian doctrine, which teaches that all are to be judged according to their talents, or l’arning; the Indian, like an Indian; and the white man, like a white man. Some of their teachers say, that if you’re struck on the cheek, it’s a duty to turn the other side of the face, and take another blow, instead of seeking revenge, whereby I understand — “

“That’s enough!” shouted Hurry; “that’s all I want, to prove a man’s doctrine! How long would it take to kick a man through the Colony — in at one ind, and out at the other, on that principle?”

“Don’t mistake me, March,” returned the young hunter, with dignity; “I don’t understand by this, any more, than that it’s best to do this, if possible. Revenge is an Indian gift, and forgiveness a white man’s. That’s all. Overlook all you can, is what’s meant; and not revenge all you can.”

Natty’s fine understanding of New Testament ethics is again attributed to the teaching of the Moravians, even though he makes practical allowances for the rough conditions of the struggle for survival in the wilderness:

“Do as you’re done by, Deerslayer; that’s even the Christian parsons’ doctrine.”

“No, Hurry, I’ve asked the Moravians consarning that, and it’s altogether different. ‘Do as you would be done by’ they tell me, is the true saying, while men practyse the false. They think all the colonies wrong, that offer bounties for scalps, and believe no blessing will follow the measures. Above all things they forbid revenge.” (Deerslayer, Ch. 5, 566)


The phases of the treatment of the Moravians reveal the gradual elaboration of the meaning of the Moravians in connection to the changing concept of the central protagonist, Natty Bumppo. In The Pioneers they form an element in the texture of the local history. If Cooper wanted to capture the social structure of the region, he had to include them, at least as a reference. Their significant role in the past is grudgingly acknowledged by old Natty, who wishes they had been less successful among the Delawares.

After an absence of any mention of the Moravians in The Last of the Mohicans, they are given the role of teachers of history and culture in The Prairie. Thirteen years later, in The Pathfinder, Cooper attempts a new configuration of their influence by establishing a balance between Natty’s admiration and distance. Natty appreciates their teaching but does not convert to their faith and does not join their Church. In The Deerslayer the role of the Moravians is further expanded and they come to epitomize not only the teachers of history and culture, but also the teachers and correct interpreters of the ethics of the New Testament and agents of cultural relativism.

This shift is reflected in the changing conception of Natty. He develops from a religiously indifferent frontier old-timer to an open-minded proto-American. Even though the Natty of The Pioneers is not entirely determined by class, his better social qualities and manners are attributed to his service to the upper-class Effinghams. In the last two novels, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, the role of the upper-class gentlemen is replaced by that of the Moravians. But Cooper does not allow a complete identification with the Moravian value system; Natty’s identity is located in a particular place (the frontier) and in the culture of his origin (Anglo-American). His cultural identity is also shaped by the best foreign influences, which, to my pleasure, are represented by the Moravians. These foreign influences give rise to alternative progressive perspectives that fertilize the American mind.

The three phases — distance, absence, and positive presence — also become three aspects of Natty’s attitudes to the Moravians because they do not replace one another but are added as a new semantic layer in the structure and continue to coexist.

Works Cited

  • Alpern, Will J. “Indians, Sources, Critics.” 1984. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website Accessed October 10, 2013.
  • Axelrad, Allan M. “Wish Fulfillment in the Wilderness: D. H. Lawrence and the Leatherstocking Tales.” In American Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4 (Winter, 1987): 563-585.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer: or, The First War-Path. 1841. In The Leatherstocking Tales, vol. 2, edited by Lance Schachterle, Kent P. Ljungquist and James A. Kilby. New York: Library of America, 1985. 483-1030.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. 1826. In The Leatherstocking Tales, vol. 1, edited by James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog. New York: Library of America, 1985. 469-878.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pathfinder: or, The Inland Sea. 1840. In The Leatherstocking Tales, vol. 2, edited by Richard Dilworth Rust. New York: Library of America, 1985. 1-482.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. 1823. In The Leatherstocking Tales, vol. 1, edited by Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Andersen. New York: Library of America, 1985. 1-466.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie; A Tale. 1827. In The Leatherstocking Tales, vol. 1, edited by James P. Elliott. New York: Library of America, 1985. 1031-1317.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Franklin, Wayne. “’One More Scene’: The Marketing Context of Cooper’s ‘Sixth’ Leather-Stocking Tale.” In Leather-Stocking Redux; or, Old Tales, New Essays, edited by Jeffrey Walker. New York: AMS Press, 2011. 225-252.
  • Gallagher, Robert L. “The Integration of Mission Theology and Practice: Zinzendorf and the Early Moravians.” In Mission Studies, vol. 25 (2008): 185-210.
  • Heckewelder, John Gottlieb. History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations. 1819. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876.
  • Hutton, J. E. A History of the Moravian Church, 2ⁿᵈ ed. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1909.
  • Mann, Barbara Alice. “Race Traitor: Cooper, His Critics, and Nineteenth-Century Literary Politics.” In A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper, edited by Leland S. Person. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • McWilliams, John. The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York: Twayne, 1993.
  • McWilliams, John P., Jr. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Morton, Richard. “The Double Chronology of Leatherstocking.” 1989. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. Accessed October 16, 2013.
  • Parker, Arthur C. “Sources and Range of Cooper’s Indian Lore.” 1954. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. Accessed October 10, 2013.
  • Stockton, Edwin L., Jr. “The Influence of the Moravians Upon The Leather-Stocking Tales.” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society, vol. 20, no. 1 (1964): 3-191.
  • Wallace, Paul A. W. “Cooper’s Indians.” 1954. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. Accessed October 10, 2013.


This article was written within the ESF project CZ.1.07/2.3.00/20.0150 “Literature and Film without Borders: Dislocation and Relocation in Pluralistic Space,” co-financed by the European Social Fund and the state budget of the Czech Republic.


1 There are several studies dealing with Heckewelder’s influence on Cooper’s representation of the Native Americans: Parker 1954, Wallace 1954, Stockton 1964, Alpern 1985, and McWilliams 1993. Barbara Mann painstakingly reconstructs Natty’s genealogy from the information scattered elsewhere in the pentalogy and argues that Natty is in fact a mixed-breed, who having run away from the Moravians, as a child, joined the Delawares. His adoption was easy because of his Delaware parent. See Mann, 166-167.

2 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 60. Even though Allan Axelrad found many mistakes and faults in Lawrence’s essay, in my opinion the retrospective change of Natty from an old man to a young man is a hard fact, no matter what happens in between, that is, between the first and the last of the novels of the Leatherstocking Tales. See Axelrad, 563-585.

3 Wayne Franklin discovered that Cooper conceived the idea of biographical chronology as early as 1841, when the title page of The Deerslayer gave the list of the previous volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales in a new, biographical order. Franklin, “’One More Scene,’” 226.

4 For example, Allan Nevins, Paul A. W. Wallace, and Warren Walker. See Morton, online.

5 See Allan M. Axelrad, who in his paper elaborates David Noble’s argument. Allan M. Axelrad, “The Order of the Leatherstocking Tales: D. H. Lawrence, David Noble, and the Iron Trap of History,” American Literature, vol. 54, no. 2 (May, 1982): 189-211. Morton also mentions Kay Seymour House (Cooper’s Americans, 1965) as one of the most persuasive defenders of the biographical order. Morton supports the sequence that follows the order of publication and seems to embrace D. H. Lawrence’s approach that seeks larger patterns, a movement from reality to myth and progression to a greater mastery of art, proving himself “an experimenter with form” (Morton, online).

6 Franklin, Cooper: The Early Years, 473. Will Alpern asserts that Cooper also read the works of other important Moravian missionaries, Loskiel and Zeissberger. Alpern, online.

7 From North Moravia came the Moravian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), who inspired Count Zinzendorf to renew their church, later called the Moravian Church, with missions all over the world. See Hutton. For a more contemporary account of the special missionary policies of the Moravians among the North American Indians see Gallagher, 185-210.

8 See my paper, “The House of the Head Versus the House of the Heart in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers,” in Theory to Practice 2012: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Anglophone Studies, eds. Gregory Jason Bell, KatarÍna Nemčoková, and Bartosz Wójcik (Zlín: UTB, 2012), 213-20.

9 See John Locke for his discussion of the state of nature and the state of war. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (1960; Cambridge University Press, 1991), Chapters Two and Three.